29 March 2006


This movie seems as though it were cobbled together from several (not particularly good) shorts. It tries to do several things at once, and ends up failing at all of them.

The movie follows a group of friends on the night of their high school graduation. It's not a new topic, and the treatment here isn't particularly original. The main innovation, it seems, is that the kids are all Asian-American, but that doesn't seem to matter much to the movie. There's a bit of reflection on Asian-American identity, and stereotypes about Asians, but not much, really. So ok, it's a movie about a bunch of friends, on the eve of a great change in their lives, having some wacky adventures. The main drive of the action is an attempt to recover $1,500 stolen from the Sin's father's grocery store. The problem is that Sin has zero interest in this project, and most of his friends don't seem terribly interested in it either. But they dutifully go around trying to get money, and then try some grander adventures - the whole thing seems half-hearted at best. In what is perhaps an attempt to compensate for this lack of real story, the movie tries to explore some other topics - Sin's relationship with his girlfriend, the blossoming relationship between two of his friends, the struggle of another friend to be more of a lady... but it becomes terribly scattered in the process, and sort of falls apart. The abrupt shift to first person narration in the last few minutes of the movie seems like a pathetic attempt to deliver some kind of telos, and it fails utterly.

One of the biggest problems is that the main character, Sin, is totally unsympathetic. He basically sulks and throws temper tantrums throughout the entire movie. You like him less and less as them movie progresses. The characters that you do have sympathy for, and want to know more about, are stubbornly stuck in the background and unexplored. But then again, the acting is mostly mediocre anyhow, so maybe it's better that way.

The dialogue is weak and often verging on bizarre in its total improbability. At moments, the intonation is practically Shakespearean, which would be interesting if it didn't seem accidental. The themes that resurface don't go anywhere. Some scenes are quite funny, but totally disconnected from the rest of the movie. Aaaah! This movie sucks!

26 March 2006

The Polysyllabic Spree, by Nick Hornby

If this blog ever became a book, would you buy it? I mean, I'm no Nick Hornby, but c'mon, it'd be pretty good toilet or bedside reading, eh?

Nick Hornby is an extremely likeable guy. I mean, I've never met him, but judging by his books, he seems like someone you'd love to have a drink with. His writing is a treat, though it's not quite as good as one wishes it was. Much as I like his fiction, it has this unfortunate characteristic, that it's great great great and then, when there's about 50 pages left, it loses steam. Suddenly, the pace speeds up, problems are hastily resolved, and the book is over. It's as though he just got sick of the thing and wanted it to end as quickly as possible. This is most clear in How To Be Good, where he sets up a problem, realizes about halfway through that he has no good ideas as to how it can be solved, tries out a few things, and then just kind of gives up. Alas.

This book doesn't suffer from anything like that, but even so, it seems to work in fits and starts. The Polysyllabic Spree is an enjoyable collection of articles written for The Believer in which he chronicles the books he's purchased, and the books he's read, in a given month. Some months are wonderful, some are a bit halfhearted. He throws in a lot of other random thoughts about daily life, the publishing world, his job, etc, which are sometimes great, but sometimes function more as padding than anything else. When he's on, he's on - for instance, when he describes feeling compelled to buy a book because it had blurbs by Philip Roth and Helen Fielding, and then imagines what a book co-written by the pair would look like ("something bubbly and yet achingly world-weary, something diverting and yet full of lacerating and unforgettable insights about the human condition, something that was fun while being at the same time no fun at all, in a bracing sort of way") - it's glorious. But other parts sort of fall flat, or seem somewhat petulant and trite.

I read the book over the last month or so, little bits at a time just before faling asleep, or upon waking up in the morning, or when my brain was tired and I was idly sitting around. It's perfect for that kind of reading - I think it would lose a lot if read in one long session. It's good to have books like that around as a grad student, because one rarely has the time to just sit down and read something purely for pleasure for hours, but one nonetheless needs a break sometimes, so books that can be read a little bit at a time, that won't suffer if left alone for a few weeks, are perfect. A collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, I might note, is also excellent for this kind of thing. And on that note, back to work...

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

I had forgotten, or maybe I had never realized, what a depressing book this is. Interestingly, while reading it, I kept thinking of the (delightful) movie SLC Punk - I should watch it again soon. There are some definite resonances between the two.

Anyhow, Kerouac's language is absolutely delightful, and I am determind to drive to Mexico this summer and have some crazy adventures under an inky black sky laden with blazing stars, but I am nonetheless fully willing to wait until the summer to do it. The road calls me, sure, but not to the extent that I'll drop everything and make it my life, the way Sal and Dean do. And maybe that's because I'm not 16 anymore, but maybe it's because it doesn't seem to work out all that well for Sal and Dean. Their lives are a series of glorious adventures, fueled by a drive to get at the beautiful mystery of life, but they never quite find it. And re-reading it, one realizes that with all their excited talking and beautiful speeches, they hardly ever seem to listen to each other. And don't even get me started on the miserable lot of women in the book. At first, you're tempted to agree; these women just don't understand the call to the open road, they're always holding you back, keeping you down, and then you realize that they seem to get something about life that most of these guys have a hard time wrapping their heads around - the joy of settling, domestic bliss. That spending your whole life seeking out adventure is actually kind of depressing: while you'll have some beautiful adventures, if you constantly demand external stimuli and can't find joy in the little things around you, you'll always be wanting more, and you'll never really be happy. Contentment is a kind of complacency, sure, but it doesn't mean you've lost the game. Actually, I think it means you've won it. It's not that you have to bid adieu to beautiful adventures - it's just that you don't have to destroy the lives of everyone around you to get them. Or maybe I just think that way because I'm a woman...

23 March 2006

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

This is an incredible novella. I've been really interested in the intellectual interactions of Thomas Mann and Joseph Conrad lately, and this book would be a great starting point for exploring the resonances between them. Aschenbach's arrival by boat into decadent, sultry Venice, is clearly indebted to Heart of Darkness. I've been interested in whether one can speak of a Polish Conrad, and this text also kind of begs the question. Somebody must have written on Tadzio as the constructed Polish Other and explored the curious Orientalism of what is, after all, a neighboring country - I must find this work. I wonder if it has anything to do with Mann's obsession with Conrad, actually.

Anyways, it's a great text. The prose is dense and delicious, and there's this incredible lingering anxiety and dissipation, an obsession with a dwindling aristocracy and what lies beneath the surface. The contrast between the sweet, sickly scent of the air in Venice's dark corners and the pure, Grecian beauty of Tadzio is brilliantly executed, and the occasional philosophial reflections on Eros, stemming largely from Phaedrus, are thrilling.

Marvelous. Just marvelous.

19 March 2006

The Big Sleep

There are two versions of this movie; the one made in 1946 and the one made in 1978. The one made in '46 stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, among others, and the one made in '78 stars Robert Mitchum, Joan Collins, and Jimmy Stewart, among others, and is vastly inferior. Not that the older version is perfect, but it's still a hell of a movie.

The 1946 version is total film noir, gorgeous black and white shots, requisite sleaze and hardboiled dames, witty one-liners, sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, moral dilemmas, and likeable characters. It gets incredible confusing, partly, I think, because all the "inappropriate" bits of the book (which I haven't read) have been cut out - the movie refuses to divulge pornography or gay love affairs, so some of the characters have no motive, and no longer make any sense. But the confusion is actually rather delightful. The primary strength of the film is that the characters are done well; they're complex people, negotiating isues of class and morality in interesting ways. They also have lots of personality, which isn't easy to do, especially with such a densely populated movie. For instance, when Marlowe meets the General, the General burns a few minutes discussing orchids, his beloved hobby. It's hilariously tangential, but gives you some insight into what kind of man he is, and makes him interesting, and more human.

The 1978 version is pretty flat, and rather stupid. Why the setting was moved from LA to London is completely beyond me. Perhaps this was to higlight some of the class issues by demarcating people with different accents (Cockney, Irish, etc), but the effort falls flat, not least because some of the accents are really poorly done. Updating the movie to the '70s and color also seems like a big loss - the story is so film noir that it hurts. Having, for instance, a detective's voice over coming as he's driving his mercedes through the colorful London countryside just seems silly. Also, the morality issues are somewhat squashed by being set in the swinging 70s, where the idea of what constitutes a scandal is different, to put it mildly. Also, the characters are just much flatter and less sympathetic. And though the story seems more clear, it also seems less compelling. The acting is not really up to snuff, but even when it's good, can you really top Humphrey Bogart? Not likely.

Remakes rarely manage to be as good as, let alone better than, originals, and this one definitely fails.

18 March 2006

Nowhere Man, by Aleksandar Harmon

I stumbled across this book somewhat randomly: I was at a conference at the University of Virginia, and during a break, I went over to the campus bookstore and browsed the textbook section, looking at what books had been assigned for what lit classes. It's interesting to me to see what kind of stuff people are expected to be reading when learning about a given topic in literature. I don't remember what course this book was assigned for, but it looked fascinating, so I bought it (thereby possibly depriving some student from the class of his/her required reading... ah well).

Anyways, I really, really liked this book. It's a complex, beautiful novel that I will definitely need to re-read someday, hopefully when I'm not on painkillers. The blurb on the back is, as they tend to be, rather useless. It claims that the book is all about the adventures of Jozef Pronek, who is always at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sounds interesting, but really misses the point of the book, I think. Though indeed, the text does, to a large extent, follow Pronek around, it's not entirely about him. The narrator is a mysterious figure; it's unclear whether it's actually the same person narrating the whole time, and there's evidence to suggest both that it is and that it isn't. There are also signs that the narrator is only narrating his fantasies, or just telling stories, rather than describing "reality". Pronek is certainly the main topic, one could say, but the book is far more complex than that. The beginning and final segments, for instance, are hardly, if at all, about Pronek. It seems to be more about what the narrator thinks about Pronek, which is somewhat different. There are also many moments where the narrator intrudes upon his descriptions of Jozef with his own thoughts and memories. Really, unless one decides that it's one narrator throughout and attempts to make a thematic link, some parts of the text don't seem to relate to the rest at all. Some reviewers on amazon.com complain that the book isn't cohesive enough to be a novel, but it does seem to hold itself together somehow - it didn't feel fragmented to me at all. But if you start thinking about it, it does unravel a bit - it's hard to say what holds it together, but something certainly does.

What's really outstanding in the book is the use of language - Harmon really has a way with words, and the descriptions are just phenomenal. He captures a lot of the tiny, somewhat unflattering details of people in wonderful ways. There's a moment, for instance, when Pronek is at a job interview, and the narrator tells us that he's clenched his ass to avoid letting out a fart. It's not the kind of thing you read about often in novels, but it does make the characters seem more real. Bodies are generally well described in the book, as these curiously beautiful yet fragile things.

The multi-nationalism aspect is also well done. Books about exiles from Eastern Europe, really from anywhere, tend to go to extremes to see people of different nationalities as being radically different, and generally resort to really trite stereotypes to highlight these differencs. This book refuses such clunky generalizations, yet does maintain a sense of foreignness with the American characters (as viewed from the perspective of an Eastern European) that is quite apt.

What's also incredible about the book is the way that it describes the former Yugoslavia, and the war there. It's a topic that hasn't gotten that much airtime in literature, curiously enough, and it's written about in an extremely powerful way. I think that one tends to think of the Balkans as having been fighting for ages, as though it's some kind of stable situation that everyone has gotten used to, and you don't think about how the people there cope with seeing people close to them dying, seeing the local streets in ruins, etc. It's pretty eye-opening to read about.

All in all then, a marvelous book, highly recommended.

16 March 2006

My Own Private Idaho

My negative review of this film may have something to do with the fact that I'm recovering from knee surgery and on some pretty good painkillers, but honestly, I don't think that's the case.

Gus van Sant movies, I realized, are very hit or miss for me, mostly miss. I think To Die For is brilliant, and I really liked Gerry, but I hated Elephant and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and wasn't particularly impressed with Good Will Hunting. I have no idea why people think that My Own Private Idaho is a good movie. Is it just that people thought that it was really edgy for portraying male hookers, gay sex and drug use? Because the movie is so fucking boring that I was tempted to fast forward through large parts. River Phoenix does a decent job with the acting, but Keanu Reeves is godawful. The plot is not only boring, but is also melodramatic and totally contrived. The dialogue is absolutely terrible. The conceit of the narcoleptic searching for his mother is totally uncompelling. Ultimately, I just didn't give a shit about any of the people in this movie.

I dunno, I guess it really just wasn't the movie for me.

14 March 2006

the Wishbones, by Tom Perotta

Tom Perotta has a knack for writing fiction that it eminently read-able; light, breezy, but surprisingly reflective, and highly sympathetic. I say this based on the two books of his I've read; the Wishbones, and Little Children - but the movie Election, which is based on his novel, seems to support my theory. Anyhow.
Perotta's main strength is his ability to portray characters who might otherwise seem reprehensible in a sympathetic fashion, without whitewashing their actions. It's not that he makes them seem like normal people who just happen to be doing bad things, it's more that he makes them seem like people. It makes you realize how common it is for "bad guys" or characters that are at all morally suspect to be portrayed as being of a different order of human somehow. He uses this strategy to great effect in Little Children, but it only seems to work for the male characters in this book. The women are a bit flat and cliche, and somewhat less sympathetic. Alas. It might have something to do with the fact that The Wishbones is told entirely from a male perspective - the main heroes, for the most part, but occasionally from that of his bandmates, whereas Little Children jumps from person to person (quite effectively).
I just wasn't really blown away by this book. I enjoyed reading it, but it felt sort of tired. The plot chronicles the exploits of a dude who is 31, living with his parents, playing guitar in a wedding band. Then he "accidentally" proposes to his girlfriend and his whole world turns upside down, because it looks like he might actually have to grow up. I've got to be honest, it's kind of hard for me to have sympathy for the guy, maybe because I've dated guys who are of the same species, and the similarity hit a little close to home. Especially because the fiancee, for the first part of the book, seems like such an irritating bitch. As the book progresses, she gets a bit more sympathetic, but as I said above, she's still kind of flat and uninteresting. Also, the reflections on adulthood and growing up didn't do a lot for me. High school wasn't the best time of my life, and while Perotta doesn't go whole hog into nostalgia for adolescence, there is this wistfulness about how exciting the world was when you were 17. I can sort of relate, but yeah, I much prefer being 23, and actually doing something with my life. I tend to resent descriptions of growing up as this drab, miserable process, because it only serves to justify the desire of these guys who can't grow up to sit in their basement watching tv.
Wow, tell me how you really feel, eh?
I dunno. It's not a bad book, but I guess I was expecting it to be as good as Little Children, which I devoured a few months ago - I couldn't put the damn thing down - and it just wasn't, at all. He does have kind of an addictive writing style, but I didn't care as much about this book.
Oh, another great feature of Perotta's writing - he has these very playful, enjoyable descriptions of sex and desire. I really value that in a book. It's not easy to do. He says, for instance: ``She was wearing a (...) a black floral print dress that was one of Dave's favorites (she occasionally `forgot' to wear underwear with it, a lapse that thrilled him beyond words)" - it's not incredibly sexy, but it captures something about the fact that sex is exciting, even if it's with a person you've been having sex with for years, and have practically memorized.
The descriptions of love are also kind of fascinating. He seems to want to have both the exciting, storybook kind of love, and the more simple domestic kind. And ultimately, the domestic kind tends to win out, and is shown to still have some of the excitement that the romance movie kind has. Still, it's not completely persuasive. A better example of that kind of thing is Mil Millington's A Certain Chemistry, which is also a highly amusing read.
Anyhow, if you're going to read one of Perotta's books, definitely go with Little Children over this one. Little Children has some of the same themes - Perotta is really conflicted about becoming an adult, I guess - but it's got a much more interesting plot. It describes a bunch of people living in Suburbia, focusing on two people who are having an affair with each other after meeting in a playground where they've taken their kids. It's a great book, and a fast read.

13 March 2006

Destry Rides Again

I love Jimmy Stewart. I first saw him in Harvey, then Rear Window, and then, I think, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or maybe It's a Wonderful Life, and that's it, I was hooked. It doesn't really matter, I guess, the point is, I like Jimmy Stewart movies and have started trying to slowly work my way through his catalogue. I was particularly excited about Destry Rides Again because it co-stars Marlene Dietrich, and because it's a Western. One of the things that I love about Jimmy Stewart is that, despite the fact that he's always unmistakably Jimmy Stewart, his characters are actually quite different from each other. This one is a real badass. Not in the puffed up macho kind of way, but in the quiet, mild-mannered, opposed to guns yet best shot in the county kind of way. Totally awesome.
Marlene Dietrich was, of course, totally hot, and also a raging badass. They just don't make women like her anymore. Her English has just a slight accent in this one, and she's got a few great songs, particularly "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have". She throws things a lot when she gets pissed, which, for some reason, is incredibly sexy. There's also a great catfight scene.
I haven't watched that many Westerns, now that I think about it. Fascinating genre. This one in particular is interesting because of the way it plays with gender identity - Stewart gets laughed at a lot for not being manly enough, and he has this weird motherly/homoerotic/best friend relationship going with the sheriff - there's this bizarre shirt tucking and untucking tic they keep up for most of the movie, very odd, and of course, Marlene is a total badass, and dominates most of the men in town, but not the main guys, and then one of the final scenes is a veritable army of women who march in, essentially to save the town. So while on the one hand, there are these moments when gender identity is clearly an issue in the standard kind of way, it also seems to subverted repeatedly in the film. It's also interesting because there's this curious multiculturalism going on as well. The sheriff develops an Irish accent about 20 minutes into the movie, and the other deputy is a Russian named Boris, who longs to be a real cowboy. So you've got this team of these three guys who are kind of othered and emasculated in various ways, and all get to reclaim their manhood; Boris by standing up to his wife, the sheriff by getting shot in the back (in this movie, it's the way to go), and Stewart, ironically, by picking up a gun. So much for being a man without a gun, eh? But it's interesting the way that there are these norms that are set up in the course of the movie in order to define some people as different, and then this difference is kind of interrogated and validated, and then dissolves. Except, it seems, for the Russian, who may become a cowboy, but will always be a Cossack. At least we can all agree there.
The movie was made in 1939, and again, I can't help but think mournfully to myself that they just don't make 'em that way anymore. But it's hard to say exactly how they made them then, and why it's so different. There's something about old movies, the kinds of interpretive practices they open themselves up to, the way they take what is essentially a stock plot and wring every last drop out of it, the acting, the whole star system - great stuff.

10 March 2006


Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts On Joking Matters, by Ted Cohen, is, alas, just some thoughts. I was kind of hoping for more analysis, less description. The book is interesting, and does have some interesting thoughts, but there's very little argument. At times I found myself doubting some of his claims, and was frustrated by his lack of interest in backing any of them up. Still though, his ideas are interesting, and he does relate a lot of highly amusing jokes.

Cohen's basic thesis is somewhat similar to his claims about metaphor; namely, that jokes create a particular kind of intimacy between teller and listener, because they rely upon shared knowledge of a certain subject and a shared response to something. This shared response is of a special kind because it can't be guaranteed - it's not like an argument, where you can persuade someone to your view. Somebody will either like a joke or they won't, and there's not much you can do about it if they don't. It might seem overly glorifying to say that jokes touch some fundamental part of your innermost being, a part that has a lot to do with your essential humanity, but I'm actually inclined to agree with him here. And there really is a kind of intimacy to telling someone a joke that makes them laugh. Laughter is a mysteriously beautiful part of a person.

I did, however, disagree with a lot of Cohen's analysis about why certain jokes were funny, and some of the conclusions he drew. The final section, on offensive jokes, was particularly dubious, in my opinion. But I don't recall exactly why, so I should probably re-read it before attacking the guy.

04 March 2006

The Handmaid's Tale

I've read this book a few times already, and I still think it's excellent. It really deserves to be counted among the classics of dystopian fiction along with Brave New World, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, etc.

I've never met a man who enjoyed Atwood's fiction, and this book especially. I think I understand why, in that it seems to me that there's a deep-rooted mistrust and suspicion of men haunting her works, a belief that they are truly "Other". Her texts are firmly anchored in a woman's perspective in very curious ways. I don't think I even noticed it the first time I read the book, which may have something to do with the fact that I was an adolescent girl at the time, and the narrative voice seemed incredibly close to me. Reading it now though, I resist this portrayal of men as these totally foreign creatures, both beautiful and terrifying, sometimes wonderful, sometimes dull-witted, but inevitably somehow strangers, even in moments of intimacy. In this book, of course, this is brought into high relief because it's precisely the point that this society has turned women into vessels for childbirth and attempted to rob them of their personhood, but honestly, I think it's present, to varying degrees, in all of her books. But as I said, for this book, it's highly appropriate. The vision of the future is chilling, particularly in that it does hit close to home in a disturbing sort of way. The description of the present is dated somewhat now - it's the world of the 80s - but recognizable, and the vision of the future is more plausible than one would like it to be. The narrative of causation isn't fully fleshed out, but is nonetheless pretty well done. The vision of the totalitarian, dystopic future, however, is quite well thought out and fully rounded. What's most eerie is that it's only well into the book that you realize that a. the story is set in Cambridge, at Harvard, b. that the events described are happening sometime around the year 2000, and c. that the whole world hasn't yet been taken over by this bizarre system. What's most effective about this third point is that by the time you realize it, the descriptions of the normal world we know seem bizarre and other-worldly, exactly as they're meant to for the character in the book. The Harvard of today does seem like a distant relic. In other words, the text effectively converts you to its perspective, estranging you from the world you know.

Another strength of the text is the way it depicts the heroine's inner life - you really feel close to the character, and have a strong sense of her personality. The writing is really excellent, more so, I think, than in Atwood's other works. Then again, maybe it's just that this was the first book of hers that I read - her style kind of wore off on me after awhile. But returning to it now, I appreciated it again. She has an extremely sensual style, in an interesting sort of way. Describing a character, for instance, as feeling `like the word lonely', gives language itself a sense of palpability that's really wonderful.

Anyhow, despite the fact that I now find the extreme feminist view of the text somewhat off-putting, I still think it's a great book. It sticks with you, resurfacing in your thoughts often, and despite the fact that I was reading it for the third or fourth time, I nonetheless found it gripping, and was breathlessly racing to finish reading it.

Hmmm. I feel like there's more to say about it, but perhaps I haven't finished thinking it all out.

Wallace and Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit/ Shaolin Soccer

I don't have much to say about these two movies, other than that they were totally awesome.

I love the Wallace and Grommit shorts, so I had high hopes for the feature-length version, mingled with some fears as to whether the awesomeness could be sustained for that much time. Rest assured, the movie delivers. It's hilarious, and the animation is incredible. How Grommit, who doesn't say a word throughout, can be one the most developed characters, that they can make facial expressions that, well, expressive, with clay-mation just blows my mind. I gained respect for Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes, both of whom I actually really like anyhow, but the fact that they added their vocal talents to such a great movie just earned them each another gold star. Another great thing about this movie is that while it's definitely a kid's movie, there are a lot of jokes in it that are for adults only - Disney movies used to do stuff like that, but alas, they seem to have moved away from those sly winks to the parents. Ah well. In any case, Wallace and Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a rollicking good time, highly recommended.

Shaolin Soccer is also a blast. It's mostly over-the-top humor and totally outrageous digressions, but it's pure gold. It's as though the people making it threw in whatever crossed their minds, regardless of whether it fit into the plot at all. The jokes are often bizarre, but totally hilarious, and the kung-fu is pretty bad-ass. Though if you're expecting a hard-core kung fu movie, you may be disappointed - this one is more about humor than well-choreographed fight scenes, which isn't to say that there aren't some great kung-fu moments. Wu-tang! One does wish that they'd milked the possibilities of combining kung-fu and soccer a bit more, and thinking back on it, the plot really does seem completely preposterous, but ah well. The movie seems to mostly be a vehicle for jokes, and the jokes are great, so hey, it's a success. Lots of fun.